As stream of immigrants fluctuates, under-resourced humanitarian respite center copes

McALLEN — Next to the worn bar of soap on the floor of the cramped shower stall lay an empty Department of Homeland Security-issued plastic bag the size of a rectangular tissue box. “G-77” was sharpied on the side, which meant an immigrant had left it behind.

A half-empty bottle of bright blue mouthwash sat on a sink nearby. So did two plastic, disposable razor blade guards. Volunteers argued earlier this week that they needed more of those at the new, temporary Catholic Charities-operated Humanitarian Respite Center downtown.

This bathroom — which can’t shed the smell of damp, used towels — is one of four at the new center that has seen a slight uptick in visitors recently. The increase, however, is still minimal compared to 2014, said Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

There’s just one shower for males and one for females, as opposed to the previous respite center at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which had plenty of shower stalls and helped feed, clothe and bathe more than 60,000 immigrants since 2014, when hundreds would pass through the church daily.

Francisco Osmin Campos Colato, a 27-year-old from El Salvador, said last week he didn’t get to shower during his several-hour stay at the center.

“It was occupied,” he said before smiling and lifting each arm to take a whiff.

A lack of bathing options isn’t the only difference between the new respite center and the old site just blocks away. Despite the smaller space, no one told Pimentel to move from the church, she said.

“It was three years already that we were there,” Pimentel said. “That parish needed its parish hall back, and I felt like I overstayed my welcome.”

They moved in the fall of 2017 when their visitor numbers were down, she said. The current location is on Beaumont Avenue between Bicentennial Boulevard and 17th Street and in the shadow of the federal court building, Bentsen Tower.

The numbers slightly spiked recently, after nearly a year of minimal visitors. More than 7,000 immigrants passed through the center in both November and December of 2016, after President Donald Trump won the election but before he took office. Following the president’s inauguration, Pimentel witnessed only a couple hundred immigrants a month for several months.

In December 2017, the numbers climbed back up to nearly 3,000 immigrants passing through. This fell to 1,788 in January, and then to 1,530 in February.